Monday, April 14, 2008

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

Back in January, I vowed to not read any more books that were compared to Catcher in the Rye. Well, Catcher in the Rye is just about the only book that The Raw Shark Texts has not been compared to. I left my copy of the book at home tonight, but the cover and the inside first few pages is awash with praise, most of it by way of comparisons to (from memory alone): The Matrix, Memento, Borges, Auster, Melville, Jaws, Douglas Adams, the Da Vinci Code, Murakami, Lewis Carroll… the list, truly, is almost to the point of the absurd.

But while the comparisons between Bad Monkeys/Prep and Catcher are clumsy at best and a farce at worst, nearly all of the above comparisons to the Raw Shark Texts are, at least, plausible.

A better reviewer might be able to pinpoint where the genre emerged—the genre of “main character wakes up and has no idea who he/she is and appears to be suffering from nearly complete amnesia.” I cannot. I trace my exposure to said genre to the film Memento, the 2000 psychological thriller featuring an underrated Guy Pearce. Amnesia is not a requirement of this genre; the protagonist must only have a tenuous grasp on reality, a sense that what he or she knows of his or her life may or may not be the “truth” (hence the comparisons to The Matrix, and even to the recent Sci Fi Channel production, Tin Man).

Eric Sanderson wakes in an apartment that he soon finds is his own. He knows his name only from the driver’s license in his pocket. Leaning against the front door is an envelope addressed to him; he opens it and finds a letter directing him to call a Dr. Randle. Dr. Randle explains that Eric is experiencing a dissociative disorder. This is, according to Randle, the eleventh time Eric has completely lost his memory. It all began three years ago when he and his girlfriend, Clio Ames, were vacationing in the Greek Islands. Clio died in a mysterious accident and these episodes are how Eric has been dealing with his grief.

Simple enough, perhaps, until the protagonist Eric begins to receive cryptic daily correspondence from “the First Eric Sanderson,” correspondence that hints to the current Eric’s lack of safety and to a much deeper plot involving “conceptual fish”—creatures that inhabit a surreal alternate existence—the largest and most menacing of which, the Ludovician, has repeatedly devoured Eric’s memories.

I’m still processing my reaction to this book. I read it voraciously in a matter of two days, despite its length. That’s a good sign. As I read it, I thought “I’ve read this before and I’ve read it better,” but I honestly can’t say where or how. I do know that the tragic end of the book hit me like a stiletto to the gut. I read and reread the last two pages to try to find something hopeful or peaceful to cling to. I didn’t find it. And still, two days later, I still feel a bit despondent about it.

It was the snippets of flashback that really got to me. The current Eric Sanderson’s life didn’t affect me to the same degree that the shadows of his true life shook me. Likewise the real-time love story that emerges is far less moving and passionate than the slivers of the love story between the lost Eric and the doomed Clio.

Apparently The Raw Shark Texts was huge in England (whenever I say something like that I am reminded of Matt Dillon in the 1992 movie Singles, talking about his pathetic Seattle grunge band, Citizen Dick, “We’re huge in Belgium, man.”). But my jury is still out on this book. I can say without a doubt that I liked it but that it wasn’t quite worthy of the gushing blurby praise on its cover. It wasn’t as groundbreaking as the critics professed it was, but it broke a little tiny something inside of me. I miss the book, and that’s something.

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